Dragons have been an important part of Vietnam’s mythology literally going all the way back to their origin story. It was believed that all of the Vietnamese people were descendants of a dragon and a fairy. Whether it was in Hanoi, Halong Bay, or the Ninh Binh province, we came across dragon mythology everywhere we visited. Dragons are considered to bring rain, which provides agricultural wealth and prosperity. As with other Asian cultures, they are also a symbol of power and were often used by their rulers throughout history. Throughout the years, the style of the dragon changed throughout the years in a combination of being snake-like to being cat-like with the latter being the one that we saw the most.
Our first encounter with the legend of dragons in Vietnam was when we went to Ngoc Son Temple that is on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake gets its name from the legend of Emperor Lợi who received a magical sword from the king of the dragons in order to defeat the Chinese. After defeating the Chinese armies, a Golden Turtle God, Kim Qui, came to surface of the lake and asked Emperor Lợi to return the sword to the Dragon King, Long Vương, who had given it to him. So Emperor Lợi gave Kim Qui the sword and renamed the lake Ho Hoan Kiem, which means Lake of the Restored Sword or Lake of the Returned Sword.
When we visited Hoa Lu, the capital of Vietnam dating back to the 10th century before it moved to Hanoi, we learned about how the images of dragons featured twelve humps to match the twelve months of the year. We saw an ancient tablet at one of the two temples that featured an ancient dragon. We saw dragons of various styles throughout the temples, especially on the temple roofs like we saw at many temples throughout the region.
Probably one of the most well known legends is that of Halong Bay. According to the legend, shortly after becoming a country, the people of Vietnam had to fight back an army of invaders coming from the sea. Fearing that would be defeated, the Jade Emperor called upon Mother Dragon and her children to help them beat back the invaders. Mother Dragon and her children stopped the invasion and then after burning them with their firery breath, they left their teeth behind as emeralds that have become the islands that we see today in order to protect them from future invasions. Some people even say that the islands look like the humps of dragons.
There are many other Vietnamese myths, but clearly being the descendants of dragons is certainly one of the most important. We really enjoyed seeing these various images carved and painted in the various places we visited. In fact, it was such a dominant feature of our trip, we even purchased a couple of small dragon statues to bring home with us.